The Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) board of education welcomed its new superintendent, Patricia Green, to her first set of public meetings on Wednesday, July 13, and trustees gave direction to Green and her administration on three issues: the athletics budget; a statistics “dashboard”; and a technology upgrade bond.
After sharing divergent opinions over many hours of candid discussion, trustees directed AAPS administration to use their “best judgment” in making $475,000 worth of cuts to athletics district-wide.
They also informally requested that the administration create a “dashboard” of district statistics, as required to qualify for additional “best practices” funding from the state.
Finally, through a formal resolution, the board directed the AAPS administration to work toward placing a technology bond on the November ballot. The bond, if passed, would levy a new millage to upgrade computers and other technological devices throughout the district.
The direction given by the board on those three issues came as a result of an unusual combination of meetings on Wednesday.
First, during a planning committee meeting lasting from 3-5:30 p.m., a revised set of athletics cuts was discussed by that committee and relevant members of the administration. Then, at 5:40 p.m., the remaining trustees arrived and board president Deb Mexicotte called a regular board meeting to order, which was recessed immediately into a study session.
During the study session discussion, which lasted over four and a half hours, the board discussed four items – the athletics cuts, the “dashboard,” a technology bond, and the possibility of offering all-day kindergarten district-wide. At the conclusion of the study session, the board resumed its regular meeting for just five minutes in order to take formal action on only one of the items – pursuing a technology bond.
Athletics Cuts – Round Two
The planning committee of the AAPS board consists of: Christine Stead (chair), Susan Baskett, and Irene Patalan; the performance committee consists of: Glenn Nelson (chair), Simone Lightfoot, and Andy Thomas.
During Wednesday’s planning committee meeting, and again during the study session, board members reviewed and discussed in detail a revised plan for cutting the athletics budget district-wide by $475,000. This second pass at the cuts was requested by the board at its June 29, 2011 meeting after the community pushed back against the original plan put forward by the athletic directors (ADs).
Athletics Cut: Proposed Revisions
The original athletics cuts included: elimination of all freshman sports except for football; complete elimination of funding for dance, cheer, figure skating, lacrosse, and bowling; and reduced funding for field hockey and crew. The process to determine the original cuts had not included direct participation by anyone other than the ADs.
On Wednesday, the district’s deputy superintendent of operations Robert Allen, Huron High School athletic director Dottie Davis, and Skyline High School athletic coordinator John Young suggested some changes to the cuts. Those changes had been crafted by a wider group of contributors including the ADs, Allen, the district’s director of communications Liz Margolis, high school principals, and some coaches, booster club members, and parents.
The revised plan would retain funding for freshmen volleyball and boys basketball as well as for football, and would allow the other freshmen sports – baseball, soccer, and girls’ basketball – to convert to club status if they desired. It would also renew funding for lacrosse for one year, but require it to convert to a club sport as of 2012-13.
In order to cover the increased cost of re-funding these programs, the ADs suggested increasing the ”pay to participate” fees. For high schools, the fee would increase from a first-sport-second-sport system ($150 for the first sport/$75 for the second sport) to a flat fee of $250 for an unlimited number of sports. The middle school “pay to participate” fee would increase from a $50 flat fee to a $75 flat fee.
In total, the revised program reductions would save $381,820. And increasing the “pay to participate” fees would bring in $190,000 in new revenue. Therefore, the total overall reduction to the athletics budget would be $571,820. Allen explained that this target provides a built-in cushion in case a lower number of students participate in athletics, and that the actual savings would likely be closer to the original target of $475,000.
Athletics Cuts: Board Response
Trustee Christine Stead questioned whether the cuts would meet the district’s obligations under Title IX, which requires that equal athletics opportunities be afforded to girls and boys. Dave Comsa, AAPS assistant superintendent for human resources and legal services, assured the board that the ADs have been careful to provide equal access to participation to all students. He added that the district had been contacted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which handles Title IX inquiries, and that after talking to Allen, the EEOC was satisfied that AAPS was in full compliance with the law.
Trustees questioned the rationale behind eliminating freshman sports. Davis explained that many of the freshmen athletes can be absorbed into junior varsity (JV) or varsity teams. She added that there are not many other schools nearby with freshmen teams, so there were not enough opponents for the teams to play against.
Trustee Susan Baskett requested that the ADs make it very clear how a varsity sport can convert to a club sport, and noted that she was aware of some difficulties encountered by those trying to create club sports at Pioneer High School. Margolis said that the ADs would help any team that wishes to convert to club status after losing district funding. Club sports are fully self-funded. Trustee Glenn Nelson said that club sports should be required to offer scholarships to students who qualify for free or reduced lunch, just like varsity sports do now.
The bulk of the board’s discussion centered on the possible disadvantages of raising the “pay to participate” fees. Trustees expressed concern that fewer students would be able to participate, but responded positively to a suggestion from Davis that parents be allowed to pay the fee in installments, as long as the full payment is received before the season began.
Young noted that some families will be able to weather the increase without any problem, and that some students will qualify for scholarships. But Young said it will be the group of middle-income students who sway the total participation numbers one way or the other. He suggested that the students who might be discouraged from paying a higher participation fee were those who played on teams primarily for social reasons, or because “they just don’t want to go home.”
In response to public commentary questions about which extracurricular activities are charged pay-to-participate fees, Comsa clarified that “if [students] get a grade in a course, [AAPS] cannot charge for it.” So there is no fee for students to participate in arts programs such as band, choir, and orchestra. Margolis added that there are tons of clubs at the high schools, but that the district does not support any of them financially.
Stead suggested that charging a flat fee would encourage students to try new sports, and Davis confirmed that colleges look favorably on athletes who are more well-rounded. Trustees Irene Patalan and Andy Thomas also suggested that students could be encouraged to pay part of the fee increase by earning the money themselves.
There was some discussion of what comparable districts were charging, and it was determined that the district’s fees are among the lowest. Baskett pointed out that some other districts had a family maximum for athletics participation fees, and suggested AAPS do the same.
In the end, Mexicotte, Nelson, and trustee Simone Lightfoot were not in favor of increasing the pay-to-participate fees, while Thomas, Patalan, and Stead were fully supportive of the revised proposal made by the ADs. Baskett said she “could be convinced” in either direction.
There was some discussion about whether to hold a formal vote on the proposed pay-to-participate increase, but Mexicotte argued strongly that the board did not need to take formal action because the athletics reductions would still end up near the target of $475,000 approved in the budget, regardless of how the administration chooses to proceed. “This is as micro-manage-y as we’re going to get … I’m putting it back to the experts,” she said. “Whether or not [the discussion provided] that clear of a direction, I say the tie goes to administration.”
Trustees settled on asking administrators to use their “best judgment” to decide whether to proceed with the fee increases, keeping in mind the concerns expressed by the board around the table. Davis concurred that the discussion had provided “great insight.” Margolis later told The Chronicle that a final decision on the administration’s plans regarding athletic cuts will be forthcoming.
State Incentives: The “Dashboard”
Allen reviewed that the state is offering an additional $100 per student to school districts that meet four out of five suggested “best practice” standards, as defined by the state. One of these is to create a “dashboard” of statistics to be displayed on the district website, including graduation rates, dropout rates, enrollment numbers, test scores, staff and administrative salaries, fund balance, and total days of instruction provided.
Allen noted that he saw no challenges to displaying the information requested, and said that it is all already being collected. Mexicotte suggested trying to design the district’s dashboard to be just like the one Gov. Rick Snyder created for the state, and that the source code for the state dashboard might even be public domain.
Nelson pointed out that the statistics required to be in the dashboard are mostly summative measures, and that providing formative measures as well might provide some genuine insight. Lightfoot agreed that the data could be used to tell a broader story instead of just setting it up to meet state requirements.
The board directed the administration to have an AAPS dashboard up on the district website by Oct. 1, and update the board at that time on how many of the five best practice requirements the district has met. The other requirements include proving that the district has: consolidated services; obtained competitive bids on non-instructional services; and limited spending on health benefits.
Green said that making the dashboard more expansive resonates with her, and applauded the board for not just trying to meet the minimum requirements. Data helps in decision-making, she said, and “transparency only makes us stronger.”
Study sessions are less formal, and the board often entertains input from others in attendance at the meeting. During the dashboard discussion, Mexicotte recognized Larry Murphy, who will challenge incumbents Lightfoot and Thomas for a school board seat in November. Murphy suggested that Allen request timely guidance from the Michigan Department of Education to be sure that the district’s dashboard meets the state requirements, so that it could be revised before the funding deadline.
Technology Bond for November Ballot
Allen presented the board with a 10-year projection of the district’s technological needs totaling roughly $30 million, which he described as “part two” of the technology refresh funded by the 2004 bond.
In response to board questions, Allen explained that the bond was primarily for hardware, and that the suggested replacement timelines were gleaned from practice as well as manufacturer life-cycle recommendations.
Green asserted that a technology bond would help to prepare students “not for our past, but for their future.” If the district’s technology deteriorates, she said, students will not be able to develop the the skills needed to succeed in the 21st century.
The board discussed how flexible a technology bond would be, and Allen confirmed that the district would have the ability to spend the money on any technology, even if it’s not currently on the market.
The board expressed universal support for putting a technology bond on the ballot, and moved into a discussion of appropriate timing.
Stead expressed concern that asking the community to fund a technology bond in November might interfere with a successful campaign for another countywide enhancement millage. Mexicotte suggested that the two were not mutually exclusive, saying “I don’t think a 0.5 mill stewardship bond in Ann Arbor this fall does anything to derail a countywide bond in one and a half years.”
The board moved unanimously that the administration craft a proposal to place a technology bond on the November ballot. The exact amount of the millage will be determined by the administration based on the district’s projected technology needs.
Board members considered tying a construction millage to the technology bond in order to build additional physical capacity for all-day kindergarten, but in the end decided to table the discussion until they had more information.
Allen distributed a report written by a district task force in 2009, which had been charged with studying the costs associated with expanding kindergarten to full-day district-wide. According to the report, he said, the operational costs (more teachers and more materials), plus the capital costs (adding classrooms to buildings) would cost the district $3-4 million in the first year.
On the flip side, Allen pointed out, keeping kindergarten half day for most AAPS schools, as it currently is, will cost the district $3.8 million per year – if half-day kindergarten funding from the state is decreased as anticipated. The state has said it plans to pay districts half of the per-pupil foundation allowance for every half-day kindergarten student as an incentive to get districts to offer full-day kindergarten. However, such a funding cut has not yet been passed by the state legislature.
The board suggested that the district should wait to see if the law goes into effect before rushing into building more classrooms. Some trustees also suggested that portable classrooms could be used in the meantime, if the transition to full-day kindergarten is eventually warranted.
Allen also pointed out that the district’s sinking fund could be used for construction costs instead of a dedicated millage.
The board entertained some discussion about the value of expanding neighborhood schools versus providing all-day kindergarten at a centralized location, and determined that more study and community input is needed before moving forward.
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